Insomnia is thought to affect about a third of people in the UK, but a new study has found sleeping pills aren't an effective way to treat it.
In a study published in the BMJ, medics at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that there was no difference in sleep quality or duration between people who took sleep medication – such as "benzos" like Valium or Xanax – for two years and those that didn't.
“While prescription drugs can help with short-term insomnia, and help to break a cycle of poor sleep, it doesn’t tackle the root problem. They really just mask the symptoms," said a spokesperson for The Sleep Charity to The Telegraph.
“With long-term insomnia, lifestyle or behaviour changes usually need to happen which is why cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is an effective treatment.
“Unfortunately, there is very little support for people struggling with sleep difficulties which is why many turn to prescription medications.”
For the study, the medics compared 238 women who had started using medication to tackle insomnia with 447 "matched" women who were not on sleeping drugs. The average age of the women was 49.5.
At the beginning of the study the two groups sleep disturbance ratings were reported as being similar, and both groups sleeping patters were then assessed at one and two year intervals.
After two years, the medics found that there was little difference in sleep quality between the women who were medicated and the women who weren't.
“Sleep disturbances are common and increasing in prevalence. The use of sleep medications has grown, and they are often used over a long period, despite the relative lack of evidence from randomised controlled trials,” wrote the study's authors.
“These drugs may work well in some people with sleep disturbances over several years, but the findings of this study should give pause for thought to prescribing clinicians and patients thinking about taking prescription meds for sleep disturbances in middle age."
While the study suggests that sleep pills aren't effective it has to be said that around half of the women were current or ex-smokers, while one in five were moderate to heavy drinkers, both of which can affect sleep.
Data on sleep prescriptions was also collected at yearly intervals, with no information reported in between. Sleep quality was also self-reported, rather than measured "objectively".
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